In summer of 1961, a new attraction opened in Tomorrowland at Disneyland – the infamous Flying Saucers. The idea was unique – think of the way an air hockey table works – and you’re sitting on top of the puck. Single riders would sit on their own saucer vehicle, which kind of also resembled a bumper car – and once the air pressure from the large platform base built up below them, the vehicles would begin to kinda-sorta hover. Depending on the direction guests leaned, that’s the direction the saucers would bounce and skid. It was noisy, and by multiple accounts from former Imagineers over the years, the Flying Saucers were one big headache from start to finish. And that finish came quickly in Disneyland years – the ill-fated attraction only lasted roughly five years before it was ripped out for something different; that something different was the first Tomorrowland Stage, which is now Tomorrowland Terrace.
Ironically, while the ride wasn’t all that thrilling, and was a maintenance nightmare, enough guests that rode it remember it very fondly today. One of those individuals is John Lasseter, who of course is the current Grand Poobah of everything creative at Pixar and The Walt Disney Studios, and also serves as Principal Creative Advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering. In other words, John’s got a lot of pull at Disney. When Cars Land was being developed, John championed the idea of a “new and improved” version of the Flying Saucers attraction that he loved so much as a kid. Likely, there was internal hesitation among designers at WDI; perhaps someone even have the cojones to tell him it was a bad idea. Then again, maybe not. Regardless of what transpired behind closed doors in Glendale, Luigi’s Flying Tires was announced as one of the new land’s three attractions. On June 15th, 2012, Luigi’s opened as part of Cars Land and immediately became the topic of broad discussion among fans and designers in the industry. Disney spent a lot on this attraction. A lot. By the end of opening day, most of us saw the writing on the wall – Luigi’s Flying Tires was a low-capacity, seriously problematic attraction that delivered very little thrill factor, or even much fun. By the time guests figured out (if they ever did) how to get their massive ride vehicles to maneuver on the platform surface, the ride cycle was over. For many riders, it was an exercise in frustration. By most accounts, the minute Luigi’s Flying Tires opened, the countdown clock was already ticking for its lifespan at Disney California Adventure.
I often have said it, and I will say it here – with no disrespect at all to the talented folks currently working at WDI. If arguably some of the most brilliant and hands-on Imagineers ever couldn’t get the Flying Saucers to work properly at Disneyland in the ’60s, what made Disney so sure that they could succeed at that today, with even larger vehicles? It’s kind of bewildering to me. However, I get it; Lasseter and by default, those under him at WDI said “make it so”, and in turn, they did.
The object here however, isn’t to beat a dead horse or beleaguer the design issues of Luigi’s Flying Tires. What we have here now, is the announced closure of the attraction by Disney, with a final date of operation being February 16th, 2015. Make no mistake – while lots of folks harp on the ride (mea culpa), there are a lot of fans and casual guests at California Adventure that do like it, and will absolutely notice and miss it when it’s gone. It’ll be remembered down the line with great fondness by folks, just the way the troublesome Flying Saucers are today. Pictures of the ride will be featured in peoples’ #Throwback Thursday posts on social media, and the merchandise – it’ll be an eBay gold rush! Imagine how much those inane Flying Tires hats will be worth in a few years?!
So, since Disneyland (and all other Disney theme parks) will never be complete as long as there’s imagination left in the world (see what I did there?), the question is, what exactly will be replacing Luigi’s Flying Tires? There have been whispers and rumors over the past several months, and this week, Disney shed some light on the subject, seeming to lock in what we’ve been hearing. But first, a speculative sidebar:
In 2001, Disney unveiled a trackless ride system at Tokyo DisneySea called Aquatopia. A play on the beloved Autopia attraction at its Magic Kingdom parks, Disney Imagineers re-developed the idea into a trackless ride experience where guests ride in water-treading vehicles, moving around rock formations and whirlpools. Since the attraction is water-based, guests may choose between a dry and wet experience. The vehicles are self-guided along the routes, giving riders a “random” experience each time. Some love it, others find Aquatopia to be boring and gimmicky. However, it’s a tried and true technology that has served Tokyo DisneySea very nicely for 15 years or so.
It appears that whatever the new ride will be that is replacing Luigi’s Flying Tires at DCA will utilize that self-guided trackless system and be very similar to Aquatopia. In the concept art that Disney released this week, it looks like guests will be in their own vehicles, out for a drive with scores of others, likely spinning and circling each other with “near miss” moments; kind of like Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree, which is a modern version of a classic “whip” ride on multiple turntables, without the whip part.
Like everyone else, we will wait and see if this new attraction delivers a fun experience and from an operations point of view, a much-needed capacity increase. Our fingers are crossed, because as hard core fans ourselves, we never want to see an attraction fail the way Luigi’s Flying Tires has. Sure, there are serious questions about this replacement ride. Is it too similar to Mater’s? Will Disney introduce some new elements to it that up the thrill or fun factor to at least that of Aquatopia if this is, in fact the same ride delivery system? Is this new ride the best use of that fairly large footprint in Cars Land, or should Disney have developed/used a completely different type of experience to compliment the existing attractions at DCA?
Only time will tell! Until then, we bid farewell to Luigi’s Flying Tires as it rolls off into the Anaheim sunset, closing the chapter on a very strange attraction tale that we will pass on to the next generations of Disneylanders and theme park fans for years and decades to come.
– Rick West